Rick Haglund: Changing Parents’ Attitudes About the Value of College is Key for the Economy
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For a long time, Central Michigan University has been renowned for providing opportunities for low-income, middle-class, and first-generation college students to obtain a four-year degree and lead successful lives.
However, like many other higher education institutions across the country, this university in Mt. Pleasant is currently facing challenging times. Over the past decade, CMU’s enrollment has drastically dropped by 43%, going from 27,114 in 2012 to 15,465 last year.
Another decline in enrollment is expected this fall, leading the university to temporarily close four dormitories on campus. CMU experienced an 11% decrease in enrollment during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the largest decline among Michigan’s 15 public universities.
In the previous year, thirteen of the state’s public universities also saw reductions in enrollment compared to 2020. However, the University of Michigan witnessed a record-breaking increase in enrollment with 50,278 students, while Michigan State University experienced relatively stable figures.
The recent drop in enrollment is primarily attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which compelled most universities to switch to remote instruction for the majority of the past two years. As a result, many high school graduates postponed their decisions to attend community colleges and universities.
However, the state of Michigan stands apart from the national trend of declining enrollment in community colleges. This deviation is mainly due to two programs initiated by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, namely Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect, targeting adults already in the workforce. These programs have successfully enrolled over 165,000 workers by offering two years of free community college tuition.
It is worth noting that the decline in high school graduates pursuing higher education had begun even before the onset of COVID-19. If this trend is not reversed, it will have dire implications for Michigan, an aging state struggling with a talent shortage.
According to a recent report from the Detroit Regional Chamber, there are approximately 220,000 job vacancies in metro Detroit that employers are unable to fill. Automakers, in particular, are facing difficulties in finding enough software engineers and other college-educated professionals essential for their transition to electric vehicles.
Jim Farley, the CEO of Ford Motor Co., recently emphasized the need for a different set of skills to build advanced electric vehicle architecture, stating that Ford currently lacks that talent.
Take a moment to reflect on this information.
Having a college degree, particularly a four-year degree, is highly advantageous at present. A study conducted by Georgetown University last year revealed that individuals with a bachelor’s degree had a median lifetime earning of $2.8 million, which is 40% more than those with an associate degree and 75% more than those with only a high school diploma.
Despite these benefits, a significant number of young people are choosing not to pursue higher education. Experts attribute this trend to various factors, such as concerns about affordability, the rapidly rising wages for jobs that do not require a college degree or credential, and a lack of interest in pursuing higher education.
A nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center discovered that 34% of men and 25% of women without a bachelor’s degree who are not enrolled in school simply do not want to attend college.
Ryan Fewins-Bliss, the executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, informed me that parents often play a crucial role in their children’s decision not to pursue higher education. Many parents claim that they cannot afford it or have heard from the media that it is unnecessary to attend college. There is an urban myth suggesting that college is no longer a prerequisite for success.
In many cases, parents unknowingly extinguish their children’s aspirations for college by refusing to provide their income data required for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Fewins-Bliss explained that a significant portion of the resistance to FAFSA stems from parents’ distrust of the government and concerns regarding privacy.
Moreover, there is a growing wave of anti-intellectualism in the country, fueled by a group of conservative governors and lawmakers, many of whom are graduates of prestigious universities.
Affordability remains a major issue for many individuals, largely due to the steep decline in state support for colleges and universities. In 1979, state appropriations accounted for 70% of the operating costs in Michigan’s 15 public universities, while tuition and fees covered the remaining 30%. However, these percentages have since reversed. Last year, tuition and fees funded 78% of the costs of a university education, while state appropriations accounted for only 22%. These figures are based on data compiled by the Michigan Association of State Universities from the House Fiscal Agency.
Whitmer has put forward a proposal to increase university appropriations for fiscal 2023 by 10%, marking the largest increase in several years. However, the $1.63 billion being offered to universities falls short by 28% compared to what was spent on universities 20 years ago, as reported by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
Fewins-Bliss, the organization’s representative, is primarily focused on encouraging more students and parents to complete the FAFSA, as this is likely to result in higher college enrollment and make college more affordable.
One of the legislative recommendations is to allocate the federal American Rescue Plan funds towards scholarships for the "COVID Class" of high school graduates who did not pursue college due to the pandemic.
It is expected that there will be opposition to increased college spending from a Republican-controlled Legislature that has historically favored tax cuts as a solution to various economic challenges.
However, as Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, highlighted, the primary concern for Michigan employers is finding talented individuals. If this requirement goes unfulfilled, Michigan’s economy will suffer.
He emphasized, "Talent is the new currency in today’s economy. Talent outweighs the significance of tax policy every day of the week. Corporate leaders are not clamoring for tax cuts, but instead, they are emphasizing the importance of talent."
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